June 20, 2004
Best Option Still Hotel Syracuse
Mike Stanton, Preservation Association of Central New York
The selection committee for the Onondaga
County convention center has recommended that the county build a new hotel
rather than restore the recently closed Hotel Syracuse. This decision
ignores the wishes of most Onondaga County residents and requires that
county taxpayers contribute more than $20 million to the project that
would not be required for restoration of the Hotel Syracuse - and at a
time when the county budget is so tight that drastic cuts in jobs and
programs are contemplated.
Many are treating the
selection committee's recommendation as if it were the final word. It is
not. The entire Onondaga County Legislature still must vote on this
measure. Legislators have the opportunity - the obligation, in fact - to
ask hard questions about the hotel options.
When the county put out a
request for proposals for a new convention center hotel, it offered to
help the chosen developer in only two ways. First, the site for the new
hotel, across the street from the Oncenter, would be provided free.
Second, the new hotel would be given the status of "official" and
"exclusive" convention center hotel so the developer could be sure that
convention business would be funneled there.
Of the hotel proposals the
county received, only one agreed to move forward with just those two
incentives: the Hotel Syracuse restoration proposal from Historic
Restoration Incorporated of New Orleans. In fact, HRI told the county it
didn't need one of the incentives: the hotel site. The city of Syracuse
had already agreed to donate the Hotel Syracuse to HRI for $1 if the
company would agree to fully restore it.
Developers proposing to
build a new hotel said thanks for the free site, but they didn't really
need designation as the official convention center hotel. Because it would
be just across the street, attached by a sky bridge, the new hotel
builders already had de facto official hotel status.
But there was one thing new
hotel developers did need that the county hadn't offered - a $20 million
investment. "Look," they said, "why don't you loan us $20 million, then
when the hotel opens and starts paying taxes, you can use these new taxes
to pay off our loan."
And this may not be the end
of the giveaways. One of the new hotel developers is also asking for a
portion of the revenue from the existing convention center garage.
Although HRI isn't asking
for $20 million, or parking lot revenue, it needs that originally promised
"exclusive" designation. This is particularly important with a potential
hotel site across the street from the convention center. A study
commissioned by the county found that, at the moment, the downtown market
could absorb one - and only one - 350-room convention center hotel. HRI
told the county that anyone interested in financing the Hotel Syracuse
restoration would need assurance that the county would not be building
another, competing convention center hotel anytime soon. The selection
committee called this unreasonable.
The selection committee's
willingness to invest $20 million of our tax dollars in construction of a
new hotel is even more baffling when you consider the strength of public
opinion favoring restoration of the Hotel Syracuse.
A public opinion poll
conducted in May of this year asked county residents whether they would
prefer to see the Hotel Syracuse restored to serve as the new convention
center hotel, or a new hotel built for this purpose. The response was
almost 3 to 1 for the Hotel Syracuse.
Why did the selection
committee ignore the most cost-effective and popular option - the Hotel
Syracuse? Here are some of their reasons.
Selection panel: The
Hotel Syracuse is too far from Oncenter.
HRI has provided the design
for a skybridge that would connect the Hotel Syracuse with the convention
center one block away. There is already an underground walkway between the
two buildings. Still, the selection committee complains the distance is
In fact, most convention
centers in North America do not have an on-site hotel. A good example is
the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, host to some of the nation's
largest conventions, where the closest hotel is six blocks away.
Montreal's convention center has no attached hotel but thousands of hotel
rooms within walking distance through the city's underground walkway
Selection panel: The
Hotel Syracuse already has been remodeled - twice.
Syracuse has never seen a
restoration of the kind HRI proposes, not on this scale at least. In
essence they will be building a new hotel within an old one. Every inch of
wiring and plumbing will be replaced, a completely new heating and cooling
system will be installed, elevators will look the same from the inside but
all lift mechanisms will be replaced. The emergency stairwell running all
the way to the 10th floor ballroom will be enlarged and an additional
stairwell will be added to bring the building up to modern code. There
will be all new equipment in the kitchens and laundry rooms, and every
guest room and bathroom will be reconfigured to the size and proportion
required of a four-star hotel.
All the while, HRI will be
preserving and restoring the parts of the Hotel Syracuse that make it
irreplaceable: the chandeliers, the plaster work and elaborate moldings.
In the end we will have the best of both worlds: all the conveniences of a
modern hotel with the beauty and charm of an historic landmark.
Panel: The HRI plan is
True, the cost of remodeling
the Hotel Syracuse is higher than the bids for a new hotel. But the Hotel
Syracuse project will cost the taxpayer less - remember, no $20 million
investment required. This is money that will be flowing into our
community, not out of our pockets. How is this possible? Part of the
reason is federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits for up to 20 percent
of restoration costs, unavailable for construction of a new hotel. And by
the way, a restoration project like this is labor-intensive, creating more
than 1,000 full-time jobs for two years.
Panel: Conventions won't
book until the Hotel Syracuse restoration is complete.
Selection committee members
have said this is the primary reason they didn't choose the Hotel
Syracuse. The county, they say, can start booking conventions for a new
hotel as soon as construction begins, but they can't book conventions for
the Hotel Syracuse until the restoration project is complete. This hasn't
been the experience with other large-scale hotel restoration projects, but
let's assume for the moment that it is true.
The Hotel Syracuse has been
a fixture in our community since 1924; properly restored it could serve
generations yet to come. The convention center has lacked a competent
hotel partner since it opened in the 1992. Should the number of bookings
during the months when the hotel is under construction/renovation be the
primary deciding factor for which hotel is chosen? Is there any
possibility this difference in revenue could equal the $20 million
taxpayers are being asked to invest in a new hotel?
HRI's latest large-scale
hotel project is the 916-room Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis. It is
the official hotel of the America's Center, a convention center roughly
three times the size of our Oncenter. Half of this hotel is new
construction; the other half is the restored 1917 Statler Hotel, designed
by the same architectural firm that designed the Hotel Syracuse: George
Post and Sons.
Dennis Wagner, manager of
the Renaissance St. Louis, has some experience booking conventions and
working with restored historic hotels. I told him our convention center
personnel expect it will be easier to book events for an unfinished new
hotel than an unfinished hotel restoration. He didn't buy it. "It will be
hard either way," he said. The worst nightmare of any convention planner,
he said, booking an event more than a year in advance, is that they will
get a call a few months before the convention saying the facility won't be
ready in time. Wagner predicts we'll find convention planners reluctant to
make a commitment before the official hotel opens, regardless of whether
the hotel is new or restored.
With the drop in
international and domestic travel since 9/11, the St. Louis Renaissance
has been struggling to meet occupancy projections. I asked Wagner if he
had any regrets about making the historic Statler hotel part of the
project. "Not at all," he said. "When people walk into the lobby for the
first time, they are just stunned." He said the Crystal Ballroom, very
similar to the Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Syracuse, is booked solid for
banquets and receptions. J.W. Marriott, president of the Marriott chain,
includes the St. Louis Renaissance among the five most beautiful
facilities in his world-wide chain of over 100 hotels.
Has the new/restored hotel
benefited the area around the hotel? Wagner said the Renaissance has been
a catalyst, sparking development of restaurants and shops all around the
hotel. "This hotel," he said, "is the best thing to happen to downtown St.
Louis in years."
2004, The Herald Company